Beware! Spurs On The Prowl

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – We’ve spent weeks discussing why teams should fear Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates in the playoffs, and with good reason.

The Thunder remain one of the most dangerous teams in the league and that fear factor should rise for whichever team faces them in the first round.

But they are far from the only team that the big dogs in the Western Conference should be worried about.

There’s an outfit deep in the heart of (South) Texas that would worry us sick if we were the Nuggets or Mavericks and faced a revitalized Manu Ginobili and the Spurs in the first round.

It’s taken Gregg Popovich‘s team a while to figure each other out. Seven new faces is a bit much for any team to fold into its mix, even one as stable and soundly built as the Spurs.

Yet they continue to play with the maturity and veteran touch you’d expect of a team with Ginobili and Tim Duncan as the headliners. Few players have been as spectacular as Ginobili has been the last month or so, what with his turn-back-the-clock showings on a nightly basis.

Still, if you really want to understand what separates the Spurs from your average sixth or seventh seed in the playoffs, you need to comprehend what Jeff McDonald of the Express-News explains here:

“Ninety minutes before tipoff of what would become the Spurs’ latest greatest victory of the season Sunday, film of a December game against Boston played on continuous loop in the locker room.

As the Celtics from three months ago took it to the Spurs from three months ago on the screen before him, Manu Ginobili cringed at what he saw in his team’s play, in its chemistry and, most of all, in its body language.

Hours later, after the Spurs had polished off a coldly brutal 94-73 victory in the rematch, and driven a sold-out crowd at TD Banknorth Garden to boos, Ginobili noticed the biggest difference in the Spurs of then and now.

“Our whole faces have changed,” Ginobili said.

So, too, has the Spurs’ season, after they survived a five-game death march against the NBA’s elite that produced three victories, punctuated by Sunday’s silver-and-black Garden party.

Ginobili once again led the Spurs (44-28) with 28 points, Richard Jefferson chipped in a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double, and the Spurs’ defense — MIA for the first part of the season — squashed the Celtics (47-26) in the second half.

The result was Boston’s most lopsided defeat of the season, and for the Spurs, another confidence-swelling triumph two days after a home win over NBA-leading Cleveland.

“We’re playing our best basketball right now, thankfully,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team is 11-4 in March. “For the last three or four weeks, we’ve played teams well.”

The Nuggets and Mavericks would be wise to avoid the Spurs … but if they find a way to dodge them, they’ll run into either the Thunder or Trail Blazers.

Ha. We can’t wait for the playoffs to kick off!

***

A CHANGE IN CLEVELAND?

It was nice to see the warm reception Zydrunas Ilgauskas received from the home crowd Sunday in Cleveland.

And as usual, the Cavs took care of their business on the court. But there was something far more important revealed about the future in LeBronville.

Brian Windhorst of the Plain Dealer talks about a uniform change in the works:

“It may seem like no team in the NBA wears as many different uniforms as the Cavaliers. Well, there’s more — with completely different styles — on the way.

The Cavs are planning on slightly changing their team colors and also revamping their standard home and road uniforms for next season. The idea has been in the works for about two years, the amount of time the team must give the league before making a uniform adjustment, but the designs are not finalized.

It will not be a major change, team sources said, like seven years ago when the team brought back its current “new expression of wine and gold” and a new logo featuring crossing swords. The team’s logos will stay basically the same, but there’s going to be a brighter yellow featured.

Also, the front of the uniforms are expected to undergo a design change with a different presentation of the word “Cavaliers” on the home white and alternate blue uniforms and a different style of “Cleveland” on the wine road jerseys.

Currently, the Cavs use a pale shade of gold. That is one of the reasons why the gold has been less emphasized in recent years. There is virtually no gold used on the current floor design and very little on the standard uniforms. Blue has emerged as the team’s secondary color by default. The new gold color will be more vibrant, closer to the original gold the team used in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The team hopes to finalize and unveil its new uniforms by the end of the season.”

***

REDICK MAKES MAGIC IN PLACE OF CARTER

Magic guard J.J. Redick has become the poster boy for patience. Panned as a Draft bust in Orlando in his first couple of years in the league, he has since become a key contributor off the bench for the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

(We can’t use the key contributor tag for his draft classmate, Adam Morrison of the Lakers.)

Redick won’t be confused for an All-Star anytime soon, but we have to surrender on this one and acknowledge that he’s a legitimate contributor, and apparently a guy that can pinch-hit for Vince Carter when the Magic need him to.

Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel waxes about Redick’s big game and the bigger days ahead:

“Orlando Magic shooting guard J.J. Redick concedes he’s “a planner.”

Unexpectedly having to play almost an entire game is one thing.

Not knowing where he will play at all next season throws him off kilter.

A restricted free agent this summer, Redick doesn’t appear to be a young man weighed down by uncertainty. Called upon after Vince Carter limped off shortly after the national anthem on Sunday, Redick scored 23 points in long relief, helping the Magic defeat the Denver Nuggets 103-97 at Amway Arena.

Redick not only made 8-of-15 shots, including three 3-pointers, but showed how rounded his game has become since being drafted by Orlando in 2006. He added eight assists and seven rebounds as the Magic (52-22) won for the 13th time in the last 15 games.

If nothing else, it’s a good day to put on his resume if the Magic decide not to re-sign him.

“I won’t lie. I think about it often,” Redick said, standing alone in the hallway at Amway Arena. “I’m a planner. I think about the future.”

Redick said he’s only had two discussions this season with his agent, Arn Tellem, about the possibility of leaving Orlando. He said Magic General Manager Otis Smith has told him to play his game and everything will work out for the best.

“It’s a first for me [being a restricted free agent] so I don’t know what will happen,” Redick said. “It’s going to be a big summer for me, getting married and everything.”

***

HAWKS COOL OFF PACERS

The Hawks extended their home win streak to eight games and snapped the Pacers’ win streak at five games.

There wasn’t anything startling about one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams putting the smack down on one of its worst. What was a bit surprising was the way they did it.

For once, the Hawks played primarily through the two-headed frontcourt monster that is Josh Smith and Al Horford, with a nice assist off the bench from Sixth-Man of the Year in waiting Jamal Crawford.

A little more on that from Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Lately it seems [Hawks coach Mike Woodson] is more willing to let the bench guys play, particularly if the starters are going to be so nonchalant about things. The reserves have earned that trust. If the Hawks lose with the reserves playing big minutes but giving big effort, so be it. Better that than to watch the starters just kind of be out there.

After scoring 31 points on 12 of 21 shooting in the first quarter, the Pacers scored 52 with 21 of 60 over the final three quarters. Yeah, they had a few shots rim out but the Hawks were much more disruptive and cleaned the boards to limit second chances.

Horford went to work in the third quarter: 12 points, eight rebounds, 6 of 8 shooting. He finished with 18 and 12 for his eight straight double-double. His counterpart, massive Roy Hibbert, couldn’t stay in front of him on defense and wasn’t much of a factor on offense.

“He’s been consistent from Day One he stepped foot in Atlanta and put on a Hawks uniform,” Woody said of Al. “He’s been fantastic. He’s been on a nice roll here of late by getting the doubles-doubles and we are going to need him to continue to do that.”

That will be easier to do if the Hawks limit those stretches where they seem to forget about Al. Not so today, when the shot distribution looked nice: 18 for Josh, 14 for Al, 13 for J.J. and 15 for Jamal.

Smoove helped close out the Pacers with 11 of his 20 points in the fourth. He also had 13 rebounds, two assists and a steal.

In three games against the Pacers, he’s averaging 20 points and Horford is averaging 25.6. ““We have struggled with them all season,” Pacers coach Jim O’Brien said.”

Largely absent from the festivities was Hawks captain and All-Star Joe Johnson, who tossed up back-to-back deep air balls after halftime that stunned the crowd. Even more stunning these days is seeing the Hawks work like this without a heavy dose of Johnson.

With the Lakers (in town Wednesday) and the Cavaliers (on the road Friday) on the schedule this week, the Hawks are going to need have all of their parts working.

***

SILVER FOXES GETTING IT DONE FOR TRAIL BLAZERS

There is no senior(s) division in the NBA, so the Trail Blazers will have to continue to let their “old guys” play with the kids.

Funny thing is, that’s the mix that’s working these days for Nate McMillan‘s crew. Jason Quick of the Oregonian explains:

“The franchise is still Brandon Roy. And part of the foundation still rests on LaMarcus Aldridge. And the future still includes Nicolas Batum.

But right now, during what is turning out to be a flying sprint to the regular-season finish line, the heart and soul of the Trail Blazers are the team’s three veterans: Andre Miller, Marcus Camby and Juwan Howard.

Led by their ageless and dynamic elder statesmen, the Blazers on Sunday validated their late-season push with an impressive and emphatic 92-87 win over the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder at the raucous and sold-out Ford Center.

Miller, in his 11th NBA season, sliced and diced his way to 26 points while expertly picking three steals and pinpointing four assists.

Meanwhile, Camby, in his 14th NBA season, continued to be the single-most game-changing factor for this team with another hodgepodge night of contributions: 11 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, a steal and a million intangibles that make his teammates and coaching staff gush with praise.

And, of course, there was Howard, the 16-season veteran, whose impact continues to be felt even though his role has been reduced since Camby arrived in a trade last month. On Sunday, Howard had six points, but four of them came during a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter when Camby was momentarily hurt.

Probably just as important as their statistics has been the mood and example the three veterans have provided. From giving advice to leading by example with their preparation and approach to the game, the trio has subtly become the pulse of the team.

“This has been going on for a while now,” coach Nate McMillan said. “Andre, Marcus and Howard … there is more talk now among the team. They are challenging each other, holding each other accountable. And tonight, Andre was the quarterback once again and Marcus was just good again. And Juwan has been there for us all season.”

Power to the (older) people!

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